“The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love.”
— Rebecca Solnit
One year ago today, I woke up in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had just spent two weeks there — studying Spanish, getting to know my neighborhood of San Telmo, and even taking my first tango lesson. But as much as I enjoyed my time in the city, those two weeks in Buenos Aires felt like a prelude to what had really drawn me to the southern half of South America.
Finally, after all those Spanish classes and tango lessons, it was time for the main event: I was moving to Uruguay.
And so it was that on a sunny Monday morning last September — September 26th, to be exact — I woke up in Buenos Aires, packed my backpack, sprinted through the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo, boarded the ferry that would take me across the Rio de la Plata river flowing between Argentina and Uruguay, and arrived on Uruguayan soil for the first time.
Now, all that was left was a three-hour bus ride from the charming town of Colonia to Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo. There, my boyfriend José would be meeting me at the bus terminal. Three hours have never felt so long. There wasn’t wifi on the bus, so I tried to pass the time by chatting with my seatmate and staring out the window at the countryside moving past us, the sweeping fields dotted with cows (“It almost looks like Ireland, but with palm trees,” I scribbled in my notebook).
As luck would have it, the bus made our three-hour journey in two, rolling into Montevideo an hour early. It felt like a promising beginning to my time in Uruguay.
* * *
If you had asked me two years ago to show you where Uruguay is on a map, I’m not sure I could have done so with full confidence. I think I can remember reading about the country back in 2014, when I was planning my first trip to South America. I briefly considered visiting Brazil, and one of the many websites or travel guides I came across suggested heading south to Uruguay, to enjoy the country’s gorgeous beaches and coastline.
My friends, I’m pretty sure that was the extent of my poor knowledge of Uruguay. It just wasn’t a country that came up on my radar very often. But that all changed on another fateful day last year — April 14th, 2016.
As you might remember, I spent the spring of 2016 (the Northern Hemisphere spring, that is) hiding out above the Arctic Circle, on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. I was working on a book at the time, so I viewed my ten weeks on Lofoten as a kind of self-funded writing retreat, my days falling into a quiet rhythm of reading, writing, and long walks along the coast.
I spent my first two weeks on Lofoten in what I still consider to be the most magical hostel in the world:
Then, I moved into a red wooden artists’ house called the Kunstnerhuset. I grew accustomed to the other travelers and artists passing through the house, who were usually Western European and often older than myself.
So when I emerged from my room in the artists’ house one morning, looked into the living room, and saw José sitting there with his backpack still on, I did a double-take. First and foremost, he was young…but he was also tall, dark-haired, and — I noticed with some regret — attractive. I noticed this with regret because I happened to still be in my pajamas, without so much as a speck of make-up on my face. I was in no state to be meeting tall, attractive travelers in the Arctic Circle.
As soon as José saw me in the hallway, on my way to the bathroom, he asked me where the house’s reception area was. I showed him with barely a squeak of a hello, before scurrying back into my room. When José and I met again in the kitchen that night — me finally showered and dressed — we swapped names and home countries.
“I’m from Uruguay,” José said. “In South America.”
“What part of Uruguay?” I asked him, as though I were intimately familiar with the country’s geography.
Once I was back in my room after dinner, I opened up a virtual sticky note I kept on my laptop, where I would write quick little notes about things that happened during my journey. I’ll always love looking back on what I wrote after meeting José:
Thursday, 14 April 2016.
“Just met José from URUGUAY — so random, from Montevideo. He just graduated six months ago in architecture, wants to work in either Copenhagen or Stockholm. His father works in the Congo, so he started his trip there as well. I love it that life surprises us, when we least expect it. It’s so easy to get lost in my own world here; how wonderful to be reminded of how big our world is just now.”
* * *
“I love it that life surprises us, when we least expect it…”
Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, this sentence would later prove to be a perfect encapsulation of my relationship with José. After my time in the artists’ house, where my path crossed with José’s for a week, I returned to the aforementioned ‘most magical hostel in the world’ for my final month on Lofoten. I’d also told José about the hostel, and when I arrived at night by ferry, he was already sitting in the common area, having come earlier in the day by bus.
My next surprise was realizing how happy I was to see him there.
So, too, was I surprised by how much we had in common. On a map, José and I were from completely different parts of the world, but it didn’t take long to discover an impressive number of shared interests: We both loved photography and were traveling with bulky DSLR cameras, and we also loved to sketch and draw.
Neither of us seemed to mind being alone all day, working on our respective projects (me on a book and José on his architecture portfolio) and then coming together at night to share simple dinners. We played the guitar, played a card game called Pounce (which we renamed Trolls, because Norway!), watched episodes of Vikings, stopped whatever we were doing to watch (and photograph) the sunset each evening, and even joined our village’s celebrations of Norway’s national day on the 17th of May.
Most surprising of all for me, I found myself taking fewer solo walks along the coast and inviting José to join me more often. I loved these walks, whether they simply led to our village supermarket a kilometer away or to somewhere further afield.
Once, as I sat writing in the hostel’s common room, José caught me staring out the window, which overlooked a small harbor.
“Looking for inspiration?” he asked.
“I just love having water outside my window,” I shared with him.
“In our apartment in Uruguay,” José said, “we have an amazing view of the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo — we’re just renting it, but I can’t imagine ever leaving. The water has become like a reference for me. If I’m in the middle of the continent, I have to find a river or something to feel myself again.”
With José, it didn’t feel like I was giving up the solitude that had led me to Lofoten; rather, it felt like I had found a beautiful soul to share my solitude with.
* * *
When I sat down to write this post, in honor of my first “Uruguay-versary,” I didn’t anticipate sharing so much of our backstory — but as soon as I started thinking back on those first weeks of getting to know José and learning about his home country, it was hard to discern where Norway ended and Uruguay began.
I will always love that about our story: That what began as a single, clearly defined journey to the Lofoten Islands, soon led me in directions I never expected to go — in the world, in life, and in love itself. I even wrote this in a card to José as I prepared to leave Lofoten. I wrote about how saying goodbye to him didn’t feel like an ending, but a beginning. And I believed that what we had found together in Norway could exist elsewhere — I knew, in a very deep part of my heart, that we had found something real.
This knowledge made everything that happened after Norway feel a little less crazy and a little more like kismet. We reunited a few weeks later in Paris, for my 30th birthday. On our first day in Paris, José asked me to be his girlfriend; on our last day in Paris, mere minutes before I left for the airport, José told me he loved me.
Then, just two days after I returned to the U.S., we began asking each other a question that was as scary as it was exciting:
I suggested housesitting — something that other nomadic couples I know have done to give themselves a base while keeping costs down — and for a few days, José and I had fun poring through listings, dreaming about housesits in Bulgaria and Romania. But then, exactly one week after we said goodbye in Paris, an unexpected text from José popped up on my phone that afternoon:
“Babe — what if we moved to Montevideo instead?”
I knew immediately that all of our conversations about what was next were over — this was what we were supposed to do. As fun as a cabin in the mountains of Romania could have been, Uruguay suddenly felt like the most obvious next step.
I already knew that José and I enjoyed exploring a new country together — now, I wanted to get to know his culture, and even more importantly, his community.
* * *
As I sit here now, with the hindsight of an entire year in Uruguay behind me, I can only laugh about my desire to meet José’s community — because of how swiftly the universe answered my intention.
As soon as that interminably long bus ride from Colonia to Montevideo ended one year ago today, José met me at the bus station and we went directly to his family’s apartment — the very same apartment he’d first told me about in Norway, with the expansive Rio de la Plata river flowing in front of it. There, I met his parents and sister, before we all went over to the house of one of his aunts, where I met his aunt and uncle and their two adorable children, José’s youngest cousins.
By the end of the next day, I’d met both sets of his endearing grandparents (with only some mild confusion with José’s paternal grandfather, who made the very understandable mistake of thinking I was Norwegian). I met more aunts and uncles, more cousins, and I even attended what would be my first of many birthday parties here — all within 24 hours of arriving. As the air buzzed with rapid-fire Spanish around me, I wished I’d had twice as long in Buenos Aires to keep brushing up on the language.
Slowly, the intensity of those first weeks in Montevideo subsided. José and I were able to settle into new daily rhythms, just as we’d loved doing together in Norway. And I got to work on a few freelance projects and story assignments — about places such as San Francisco, Guatemala, and Peru.
But I didn’t feel ready to write about Uruguay yet. Instead, I let my sketchbook do the talking:
From the very beginning, Uruguay felt too big, too weighty, for me to immediately process into stories and blog posts. My arrival here was one giant leap into the deep-end of José’s world and family, and it took time for me to find my own footing here.
Finally, six months after my arrival, I wrote about the country for the first time for G Adventures’ blog — a collection of sketches I called “An Illustrated Love Letter to Uruguay.” One month later, I started working on an illustrated essay for Longreads called “Home is a Cup of Tea,” which tells the story of my search for home through the different teas I discovered while traveling.
Yerba mate tea plays a starring role in Uruguayan culture, so I didn’t have to think twice about how to fit Uruguay into the story; it was practically meant to be a part of it. Even still, I’d been writing about the idea of home for years — especially my own journey to find home in the world — so once I got started on my story for Longreads, I specifically remember the moment I opened up my notebook of ideas and wrote at the top of a new page:
“What has Uruguay added to the narrative?”
Which was essentially my way of asking, “What has Uruguay taught me about home that I never learned before?”
If you’ve had a chance to read “Home is a Cup of Tea,” then you’ll know that time is a big theme running through the story. Feeling at home in a new place doesn’t always happen instantaneously. Home, Uruguay taught me, takes time. But there’s one more lesson about home Uruguay has taught me, that I’d like to share with you today — only it isn’t about finding home in any particular place.
It’s about the greatest homecoming of all — coming home to ourselves.
A few months after moving to Uruguay, I sat in our living room one day, with a warm mug of coffee and my notebook of ideas open in front of me. After a few long sips and a few more moments of staring out the window, I began to write:
“It’s a quiet Tuesday morning in Montevideo, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be writing from a place in full view of the river. To have the presence of moving water fill my window again, just as it did in Norway, is a blessing. I am coming home to myself in a way I didn’t even know I needed to…”
I stopped writing at that moment, because the more I thought about the harbor outside the hostel’s curtained windows in Norway, the more I was reminded of other favorite places where water had also filled the view outside my window. There was Vashon Island near Seattle, where the beautiful home I had the chance to stay in was built right on the shores of Quartermaster Harbor:
There was the little house I’d rented for six weeks along Lake Atitlán in Guatemala:
And there was the yurt I’d lived in on Salt Spring Island in Canada — well, the yurt didn’t *technically* overlook water, but the coast was only a short walk away:
At the time, I had thought of these places as creative retreats — they were places I went to think deeply and work hard on book projects. But on that quiet morning in Montevideo, I suddenly began to view these retreats in a different light.
I realized that every retreat was always preceded by a season of intense movement and travel. I realized that for years, I’d built my life around the same pattern: I would travel and move until I burnt myself out, finally acknowledging that I needed to slow down, catch my breath, and be still for a while. Finally, I realized that pattern wasn’t exactly a healthy or sustainable one — and so I picked up my pen and kept writing:
“It feels good to be shaking that pattern up — it’s time for a change. I want to build a life of creative wholeness and balance for myself that I don’t need to run away from to do my best creative work.”
When I wrote those words last December, I didn’t necessarily know what creative wholeness would look like on a day-to-day basis. But just a few weeks later, José started his first architecture job here in Montevideo, which has him working from 8:30am-6:30pm every weekday. For the first time as a freelancer, I decided to start holding myself to the same work schedule, instead of staying up all hours of the night — and I especially decided to stop working so much on the weekends, making more room in my life for downtime and rest (which research has proven can be quite beneficial when it comes to productivity and creativity).
Now, when I sit down at my desk in the mornings, I love having finite blocks of time to work in. It keeps me more engaged with each task, just as I always felt during each creative retreat when there were fewer interruptions. It has also inspired new ideas I never expected to explore; I’ve experimented more in my storytelling, just like I did in my essay for Longreads, and in January, I took another big leap and started a sketching challenge that has since grown into our beloved Moment Sketchers community.
But at the same time, I love having more boundaries and balance to my days now — that as the clock inches its way to 6:30 or 7pm every afternoon, I feel a slight rush of pressure to finish what I’m working on, since my workday will soon be ending.
Now, when José walks in the door at night, I love closing my laptop and shifting my energy. I love that we’ll go and spend time with his friends or family, play more rounds of Trolls or Scrabble in Spanish, do our weekly shop at the supermarket, or listen to jazz bands at one of our favorite restaurants on Tuesday nights. Most especially, I love it when José prepares a mate and we go for a sunset walk along the Rambla — the 14-mile-long boardwalk in Montevideo that follows the coastline of the Rio de la Plata.
Just as José spoke about the river to me in Norway, it has become a point of reference for me here as well: A place to slow down, breathe, and simply be.
To feel this peace in the midst of my everyday routines is the greatest gift Uruguay has given me.
* * *
Friends, I must admit that this wasn’t at all the post I had in mind when I sat down to write about my one year Uruguay-versary.
I thought I would put together a neat list of things I love about Uruguay, or share the many gifts this country has given me (first and foremost, a passionate appreciation for dulce de leche and for the heavenly, dulce de leche-filled creations known as alfajores).
But what can I say? Uruguay has been surprising me ever since José walked through the door of the artists’ house in Norway last year, and so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that even the shape of this post went in an unforeseen direction. And in no way has Uruguay been a neat and tidy journey for me. As I shared with you earlier in this post, it has been big and messy, all in very good ways. It has overwhelmed me, fascinated me, brought me to tears, and made me laugh (especially at myself).
Ultimately, Uruguay has taught me so much about love. I’ve learned about the love you share within a family, being there for the people in your life. I’ve learned about the love you share with your partner, as you create the rhythms that will shape your days and ever so slowly build a life together. And most surprisingly, I’ve learned how to love myself better — honoring my need for solitude and quiet space to work in creatively, even while staying connected to a community.
I will always be grateful for the red wooden artists’ house where my path first crossed with José’s — but I’m even more grateful that our story didn’t end there.
I love that it brought me to an unexpected country called Uruguay, a place I can now call home.
* * *